Ask Gabe Newell: Portal 2’s Relationship Advice for Powerless Players
by Joel Jordon
Portal 2 is about relationships. It’s about Chell’s relationships with GlaDOS and Wheatley, who hold power over her and lend the game some of its feminist subtext. These relationships are in many ways metaphors for abusive relationships from which Chell desires to be liberated. But the game emphasizes how neither Chell nor the player has any control over her situation. The player has no agency, and the anticlimactic ending serves as a metaphor for his or her “breakup” with the game. The player’s relationship with the game, in fact, might represent the game’s most oppressive relationship. All told, the lack of player agency and all of the game’s metaphorical relationships offer a unique commentary on power.
Portal 2 is a linear game. Because it’s a linear game, no matter what the player does, the story will, inevitably, proceed in exactly the way intended by the developers. This is important because it means that, as a player, you have no agency whatsoever. There is an illusion of agency throughout the game—the alternative to escaping appears to be to fail to escape—but in reality, any time you die the game rewinds time and lets you play through the section you died in again any number of times you need to until you don’t die. All deaths are “noncanon” (i.e., they never actually happen, according to the story that follows) so that the only thing that can actually happen in the actual narrative is that the player “wins” the game and escapes the facility. The player knows that all complete playthroughs of the game will be effectively the same and will entail going through set numbers of test chambers before opportunities to escape arise. The player has no agency to change Chell’s situation but is, in reality, simply waiting for the game to prompt opportunities to attempt to escape, which will happen in exactly the same parts of the game no matter how many times you play it.
This lack of player agency creates an interesting paradox that could only exist in a video game. In a movie, the actions Chell takes to defeat GlaDOS and Wheatley and escape the facilities could only be viewed as heroic. In a video game in which the player controls Chell, however, Chell’s actions would only seem heroic if the player chose to perform them. But because the player has no actual agency whatsoever, the inevitability of these actions is highlighted and they appear to be a whole lot less heroic. It’s possible to suspend our disbelief and simply assume we are meant to believe that it is possible for Chell and the player to fail, even if this can never happen, and then interpret the story as we would if we saw it in a movie. But I think this might be a superficial interpretation, and I think the game has a very interesting subtext when you consider the events of the story in the light of the player’s lack of agency.
Environments of Power
The game’s narrative is primarily concerned with Chell’s relationships with GlaDOS and Wheatley, and the events of the game are primarily influenced by changes in those relationships. In the first half of the game, Chell and Wheatley work together against GlaDOS, and in the second half of the game, Chell and GlaDOS work together against Wheatley. Both GlaDOS and Wheatley, at different times, have power over Chell, who is subjected to a series of pointless tests by the both of them.
Their power is reflected not just in the situation Chell is in but also in the ability these two robots have to manipulate the environments in which Chell finds herself. When GlaDOS is in power, she demonstrates her power over the environment when she begins to “clean up” the early test chambers, popping panels out to sweep away trash and shifting walls around. Her power seems to increase as you progress and begin to watch her manipulate many panels at once in a more mechanized manner while the later test chambers begin to assume the more sterile look they had in the first game. Wheatley is stupid and has less control over the environment when he’s in power, as demonstrated by the first test chamber he builds for you, where he’s failed to fill up the moat and where you only have to press a button for a box to fall and complete the test. But soon enough it becomes apparent that his lack of control will only make his power all the more dangerous. He begins to put test chambers together haphazardly by crashing walls into each other, and his actions cause the entire facility to begin to fall apart.
GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s often quite violent manipulations of the very environments in which Chell finds herself establishes the overwhelming power they have over her. Furthermore, as these environments constitute the levels of the game, the player experiences these manipulations of the environment as the most fundamental and obvious examples of GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s power.
Chell’s subjection to a series of pointless tests in environments over which GlaDOS and Wheatley have total control emphasizes her impotency. But even when she’s escaping, the lack of any real player agency—the fact that escape is inevitable as long as the game is completed—means that there can be no real sense of progress. In fact, the environments of the game’s escape sections probably best reflect how the player has no real agency and highlight the artificiality of the entire game experience. Even when escaping, the game is completely linear, and there is just one path to take. Walls on which portals can be placed are conveniently positioned so that the player can use them to advance to new areas. Gel conveniently drips in just the right places. In most games, we would just suspend our disbelief and accept that these (for lack of a better term) “gamey” elements exist because good gameplay could not exist without them. But the developers of Portal 2 actually went out of their way to provide a context—GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s artificial test chambers—for which these elements of the gameplay actually make sense. So, once these elements are brought into more organic environments, I like to think, instead of just suspending my disbelief, that they deliberately emphasize the artificiality and linearity of the game experience and therefore the player’s lack of agency—and I think this interpretation gives an interesting context to the game’s narrative.
Portal 2 has a feminist subtext. Near the beginning of the game, when Wheatley is explaining the events of the first game to Chell, he inadvertently refers to the person who defeated GlaDOS in the first game as “him,” which is nothing less than the writers taking a satirical jab at the common assumption that heroes must be males. Later in the game, Wheatley tries to entice Chell to jump into a pit by promising her that she will find a variety of things that one might stereotypically assume a female would desire: he promises that she’ll find “[a] very trendy designer jumpsuit from France, […] a lovely handbag, […] [b]oys! Loads of fellas. Hunky guys down there. Possibly even a boyfriend. […] And, ah, a boy band as well! That haven’t seen a woman in years. […] And… a farm! A pony farm!” This, too, must be meant as a parody of sexist expectations. Then, near the end of the game, we are of course introduced to the adventure sphere character, who constantly refers to Chell as a “lady” and compliments her looks while bragging about his strength and telling her to step aside and let him handle the fight. He even urges Chell to come up with a cool catch phrase for when Wheatley is defeated. The adventure sphere probably constitutes the game’s most blatant parody of sexism and serves as a way of mocking the typical hero of an action game. The adventure sphere is hypermasculine and stupid and, ironically, can’t actually even do anything on his own despite his bragging because Chell has to carry him around.
Where the game’s feminist subtext comes out most consistently is during the part where we hear Cave Johnson’s recordings. In this part of the game, Chell travels through the old Aperture Science facilities, used from the 1950s through the 1980s, and hears Cave Johnson’s recordings from this time period, too. The very first recording opens with “[w]elcome, gentlemen,” and many of his later recordings continue to make use of gender-biased language even though it is now Chell, a female, who is going through these test chambers. Cave also has an “assistant,” Caroline, with whom he interacts in a way that highlights his sexism. He compliments her for being “[p]retty as a postcard” and modest, and she only speaks when Cave speaks to her first. Cave’s sexism never manifests itself as plain and straightforward misogyny, but is instead the kind of institutionalized sexism commonplace to the mid–20th century. In this time period, Aperture Science as an institution clearly reinforced keeping males in power and females out of power in subtle ways, like through the use of gender-biased language and compliments that encourage stereotyping. I mention all of this here as a strong example of how power manifests itself in Portal 2, although it isn’t the main focus of my argument. Others have discussed institutionalized power and sexism in Portal 2 in greater detail than I’m going to, and if you want to read more about it, I recommend taking a look at this article that has a solid grounding in feminist theory and this one that gives a good interpretation of Aperture Science’s history.
What I want to talk about is how the game’s feminist subtext ties into the main part of Portal 2’s narrative: Chell’s relationships with GlaDOS and Wheatley. I believe these relationships demonstrate the exertion of power more than anything else in the game, especially as I think it’s possible to interpret them as metaphors for abusive relationships. As I’ve discussed in the previous section, GlaDOS and Wheatley constantly demonstrate the power they have over Chell by manipulating her environment. Chell is subject to all of GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s whims because she is literally trapped in this environment—just as someone might be trapped in an abusive relationship.
Neither the player nor Chell has any way of making GlaDOS or Wheatley stop manipulating the environments while in them, but the primary gameplay does involve figuring out clever ways to get through the environments by placing portal in them. This establishes an interesting contrast between Chell and her two antagonists. Whereas Wheatley and GlaDOS often violently manipulate the environment and even sometimes use violent force to attempt to kill Chell, Chell has to use her intellect to solve puzzles. Portal 2 seems aimed at playing with our expectations about first-person games. Most first-person games are hypermasculine shooters that emphasize the use of guns and violence to get past obstacles, whereas Portal 2 is actually a puzzle game in which intellect must be used to get past obstacles. An article about the first game discusses this in more detail and also talks a bit about Freudian imagery. My main point here is that this contrast between the methods Chell and the game’s antagonists use to get past obstacles highlights the power they have over her. Wheatley and GlaDOS have the power of brute force over someone whose intellect can only ever really help her to play their games and go through their pointless tests. Their overwhelming physical power traps her.
The game is especially critical of the physical power held by Wheatley. He’s characterized as stupid from the beginning of the game, and we see almost immediately how he typically relies on brute force to get past obstacles. In the very first scene of the game, he can’t figure out how to properly dock Chell’s relaxation chamber so he simply breaks through a wall. When he tells Chell to turn around and not watch as he “hacks” a door, he just breaks the door’s glass. His naïveté is endearing in this first half of the game, but once he becomes powerful—once he is, metaphorically, in an abusive relationship with Chell—his stupidity and use of brute force becomes dangerous. He begins to wreck test chambers and completely destroy the facility. Near the end of the game, he begins to use spike plates and bombs to try to kill Chell.
It’s clear that Wheatley has physical power over Chell. Something that’s a little more subtle is that Wheatley seems to experience almost sexual pleasure from the power he holds over Chell. As is noted in one of the articles I already linked to, Wheatley sounds as if he gets orgasmic pleasure when Chell begins to complete his test chambers. This is just another piece of evidence showing that Wheatley’s relationship with Chell might be meant as a metaphor for an abusive relationship.
So there’s physical and sexual dominance, and I’ve left the most obvious for last: verbal abuse. Throughout the entire game, either GlaDOS or Wheatley (depending on which of them is in power) is constantly insulting Chell. They call her fat, they tell her she’s adopted and that that’s a horrible thing, and they lob all sorts of other insults at her. Most significantly for this abusive relationship metaphor, there are two instances—and one occurs during the climax of the game’s first act, and the other occurs just after the game’s final climax, so they’re said at pretty important times—in which they call attention to the fact that Chell is a silent protagonist. The first instance occurs when Wheatley gains power. He says the following:
Don’t think I’m not onto you, too, lady [Chell]. You know what you are? Selfish. I’ve done nothing but sacrifice to get us here! What have you sacrificed? Nothing! Zero. All you’ve done is boss me around! Well, now who’s the boss? Who’s the boss? It’s me!
The second instance occurs after Wheatley has been defeated and power has been returned to GlaDOS. She calls Chell a “dangerous, mute lunatic.” Calling attention to the fact that Chell is a silent protagonist is calling attention to her apparent passivity. While these robots jabber on and verbally abuse Chell throughout the entire game, she takes it all without saying anything back. This reflects her inability to do anything about her situation and her lack of power in these relationships. Wheatley’s lines also show that assuming a position of power in his relationship with Chell requires quite a bit of delusion on his part.
The feminist subtext behind GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s metaphorical abusive relationships with Chell seems to aim at a critique of power. The game doesn’t say much of anything about the serious consequences of relationship abuse, and it doesn’t seem aimed at just showing us how men are bad because Wheatley treats Chell badly. After all, Wheatley’s stupidity is endearing in the first half of the game, when he isn’t in power, and GlaDOS is plainly nice to Chell in the second half of the game, when she isn’t in power. It seems that, as long as either character isn’t dominant in the relationship, they’re perfectly capable of being friends with Chell. Probably the best evidence that the feminist subtext aims more at critiquing power than anything else is that the most blatantly feminist part of the game—when Cave Johnson is saying sexist things—is exclusively critical of the mid–20th century’s institutionalized sexism. So the main point of the game’s feminist subtext seems to be to suggest that Chell is better off when liberated from relationships in which someone has power over her. But it’s also clear that neither Chell nor the player can do anything that will allow her to escape the power they have over her. This is where I’d like to talk about how the game’s ending highlights the lack of player agency and how this, too, serves as a representation of power in Portal 2.
…Now you’re single
Those parts of Chell’s relationships with Wheatley and GlaDOS that I discussed just above, when they don’t have power over her and are nice to her, show us that these relationships go through phases, just like any relationship does. I believe these parts of the relationships are when Chell is, metaphorically, no longer “in a relationship” with GlaDOS or Wheatley but instead just friends with them. And I think the game’s ending is a metaphor for when she is truly and completely “broken up” with the both of them.
In the denouement right after the fight with Wheatley, GlaDOS says, “I thought you were my greatest enemy, when all along you were my best friend.” Much of the ending is filled with statements of regret like this one, from both of the game’s antagonists. In the end credits song, after singing bitterly about how she’s counting on Chell to take her freedom and leave her alone, she sings, “When I delete you, maybe I’ll stop feeling so bad”—except the last part of the line, about feeling bad, appears as “[REDACTED]” in the lyrics.
Immediately after GlaDOS reluctantly expresses her regret, Wheatley stars in the game’s final scene, in which he, too, expresses regret. He says the following:
I wish I could take it all back. I honestly do. I honestly do wish I could take it all back. And not just because I’m stranded in space. Anyway, you know, if I was ever to see her again, do you know what I’d say? I’d say, “I’m sorry.” Sincerely. I am sorry. I was bossy and monstrous, and I am genuinely sorry. The end.
What could all of these feelings and expressions of regret be but those feelings and expressions that occur at the end of serious relationships? And now Chell is, almost literally, single. Neither Wheatley nor GlaDOS has power over her anymore, and she’s been let free into the outside world. It seems to be a mixed blessing, too: she’s free, and it’s nice and sunny out, but she comes to the surface in the middle of a totally barren wheat field. It captures the sort of combined feeling of freedom and loneliness that comes with the end of a relationship.
The game’s resolution seems deliberately anticlimactic, which is in line with the kind of disappointment felt at the end of a relationship. After finally defeating Wheatley, power is simply returned to GlaDOS, who just lets Chell go. She acknowledges that they could keep on testing, but this would just be repetitive: GlaDOS has put Chell through a series of test chambers twice already, and when she almost escaped for good the second time, Wheatley then subjected her to another series of test chambers. If GlaDOS doesn’t let Chell go and instead puts her through more test chambers, the situation would circle back and repeat again, and GlaDOS is pretty sure she’d just be better off without that. In other words, they’ve tried to make this relationship work out several times in the past, and it’s just not happening. So GlaDOS breaks up with Chell.
The ending’s sense of anticlimax and its breakup metaphor really emphasize Chell’s subjection to GlaDOS’s and Wheatley’s power. Instead of being allowed to dramatically escape from the facilities, which might have demonstrated some newfound power and a greater feeling of liberation, GlaDOS simply uses her own power to send Chell on an elevator up to the surface. But more significant than Chell’s subjection to power here is the player’s. In the ending, the lack of player agency is suddenly brought to the forefront. Once the player launches that portal onto the moon, he or she has no more control over the game but can only watch as Wheatley is defeated and GlaDOS sends Chell up an elevator to the surface. You don’t even have camera control to look around when you’re on the elevator, the first extended scene in the game where this is the case, and then just after that the game has its first cutscene that doesn’t use in-game graphics. When Chell gets to the surface, she even moves around on her own. Chell has been freed not only from Wheatley’s and GlaDOS’s control but also, in a very literal sense, the player’s. And then, after the end credits, the game has a scene starring Wheatley, the only scene in the game that isn’t part of Chell’s experience or from her perspective.
What’s going on? The game up to this point has seemed concerned with maintaining at least the illusion of player agency, but the ending completely strips that away. The player no longer has any control whatsoever, which highlights the inevitability of the narrative’s trajectory to the game’s final moments. On reflection, now, the player might recognize the linearity and artificiality of the whole game experience. Chell isn’t just freed from the player’s control in the game’s ending, but he or she has never really had any control over her at all: Chell can only go down one path in Portal 2, and the player has no influence over it.
And the truth is that Chell isn’t actually left single at the end of the game. After she reaches the surface and looks around at that barren wheat field, and just before the game cuts to the end credits, her beloved companion cube pops out of the door. Chell is left with the one object, from the first game, with which she had a relationship in which someone wasn’t asserting dominance over her. Just as her relationships with GlaDOS and Wheatley seem to be metaphors for abusive relationships, her relationship with the companion cube seems to be a metaphor (as it would need to be, because if it’s hard to imagine Chell in a literal relationship with robots, it’s even harder to imagine her in a literal relationship with a box) for a more positive and equal relationship. As I discussed in the previous section, the game’s feminist subtext seems mainly to critique the relationships in which someone holds power over Chell; there is nothing to suggest that she shouldn’t be happy in a different kind of relationship. So Chell is left neither lonely nor single at the end of the game—but the player is.
I want to suggest that, while Chell had all of her own relationships with different characters throughout the game, the player also actually had a relationship with the game itself, and the whole ending is meant to be a kind of anticlimactic and sad breakup with the player. In fact, a lot of the lines in GlaDOS’s song can be interpreted as directed not at Chell but the player. GlaDOS says she’s “counting on” you to “take your freedom,” and she informs you that “[y]ou’ve got your short sad life left.” And of course, “[n]ow [she] only want[s] you gone.” It sounds a lot like GlaDOS is breaking up with you, saying bitterly that Portal 2 is over and now you have to move on with your life.
The player, like Chell, is now free and has to find his or her own companion cube—something else, now that Portal 2 is over, that he or she can be happy with. The player’s relationship with Portal 2 has been pretty similar to Chell’s relationships with GlaDOS and Wheatley. It’s been pleasant in parts, just as GlaDOS and Wheatley were nice to Chell in parts, but it has, ultimately, been unfulfilling because of the amount of power it’s had over the player. The player has never had any agency or been able to make any of his or her own choices but has instead been following the game’s single and inevitable trajectory.
Portal 2 is ultimately about power, which is portrayed in all of the game’s range of relationships. Chell is subjected to Wheatley’s and GlaDOS’s power, and the player is subjected to the power of a game over which he has no control. Wheatley says it best near the beginning of the game, just after he’s popped off of his rail:
Look at this! No rail to tell us where to go! Oh, this is brilliant. We can go wherever we want! Hold on, though, where are we going? Seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Hm. Just follow the rail, actually.